For many years professional bodies have been warning businesses and their employees about the adverse effects that night-time work is having on the human body. Despite the obvious debilitating effects of sleep deprivation these warnings extend into the increased risks of stress, diabetes and obesity, heart attacks, and cancer. In fact, there’s probably enough written in the previous sentence alone to scare anybody away from working the night shift. And now the latest report that the BBC is covering (see “Night work ‘throws body into chaos’“) from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) paints an even bleaker picture.
In this report the PNAS claims that the potential damage to the human body is occurring at the “deepest molecular level” and that the “the scale, speed and severity of damage caused by being awake at night was a surprise” by altering the human body’s “natural rhythm or body clock” creating “profound effects on the body, altering everything from hormones and body temperature to athletic ability, mood and brain function.” It is the genetic “fine-tuning” of the body that is being attacked. The researchers further comment that the body’s “rhythmic genes become out of sync with mistimed sleep and this really explains why we feel so bad during jet lag, or if we have to work irregular shifts”. Let’s pause for a moment as this sounds like an extremely serious matter because people whose working shifts change so that they spend a certain amount of time working during the day before spending periods of time working at night are probably in a constant state of biological disarray and should probably assume that this is harming their bodies.
One limitation of this study however is that it only tracked twenty-two people and how each of their bodies were “shifted from a normal pattern to that of a night-shift worker.” Statisticians may challenge whether such a small sample size is indeed statistically viable and whether further studies are required before drawing any firm conclusions. But let’s not take any chances here and instead we will assume that the findings are relatively accurate. After all, other scientific research that highlights the adverse impact of shift working on the human body is plentiful.
Obviously the simple answer is to no longer work the night shift…right? The problem is, in many industries this is unavoidable. Sometimes wholly. Take for example the healthcare industry. Nobody expects to visit the emergency room during the very early hours of the morning only to find that it is closed and no medical expertise is available until 9am. This could lead to many injuries and illnesses progressing from minor, to life-threatening. Likewise, if one is assaulted and robbed in the street, nobody expects to call the police for assistance only to receive an out-of-office message because the police only work during the daytime.
We could go on with other examples that relate to the emergency services but this expectation doesn’t stop here. What about the crews of technicians who maintain the country’s roads and subway systems during the night? And the gangs of electricity technicians who restore power to homes and businesses at 4am after a storm has ripped the power lines from their poles? Clearly all of these activities could be completed during the day but such delays will cause widespread disruption to the country’s economic viability because the country will quickly become dysfunctional. There is an expectation from the citizens that such disruptive work occurs at night when it is quiet so any disorder is minimized.
Night-time working is therefore unavoidable so what does a service business do to minimize the potential damage to its employees? The best businesses look at investing in technology. If employees must work at night then smartly planning when, and for how long, can reduce the time spent working hours that can harm the body. Some businesses have followed the same shift patterns for decades but today there is no need to adhere to such a rigid structure. Today’s smart software can not only better plan the allocation of people but also the shift patterns and schedules themselves.
Technology doesn’t just exist to reduce costs and better manage people: Sometimes it also serves a greater purpose that cares for and looks after your employees.